CAMBRIDGE – The question that still underlies much thinking about economic development is this: What can we do to kick-start economic growth and reduce poverty around the world? The “we” is sometimes the World Bank, sometimes the United States and other rich countries, and sometimes professors of development economics and their students huddled in a seminar room. It is on this question that the entire development-aid complex is based.
But what has transformed Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya over the last two years has not been efforts by the outside world to improve these societies or their economies, but grassroots social movements intent on changing their countries’ political systems. It started in Tunisia, where the revolution swept President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime out of power. It then spread to Egypt and Libya, ending Hosni Mubarak’s and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s even more repressive and corrupt regimes.
The people who poured into the streets and risked their lives were fed up with the repression and the poverty that these regimes caused. The average Egyptian’s income level, for example, is just 12% of the average American’s, and Egyptians can expect to die 10 years sooner. Fully 20% of the population lives in dire poverty.
The protesters in Tahrir Square perceived the cause of Egypt’s poverty in its non-responsive, repressive political system, its corrupt government, and the general lack of equality of opportunity in every sphere of their lives. They saw their current leaders as part of the problem, not part of the solution. By contrast, most outsiders, asking “What can we do?”, emphasized geographic or cultural factors, or some purely economic “poverty trap,” whose effects should be countered by foreign aid and advice.